Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Love & The Body Of Christ

If I… but do not have love, I am… - 1 Corinthians 13:1

As we wade into chapter thirteen of the first Corinthian letter, we need to be aware that Paul is deploying his full rhetorical arsenal.  While he is most certainly elevating love as that which is to be the controlling ethic for the body of Christ, he is also stripping other activities of the honor that has been over-ascribed to them.  When he writes “If I speak in the tongues of mean and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (13:1), he is not passing judgment on the activity of glossolalia.  For Paul, this is a common and accepted religious practice, embraced by the worshipers of any number of gods, which dates back hundreds of years before the advent of the church.  However, it does seem to be a bit problematic for this particular church, and owing to that, he is engaging in rhetorical speech directed to those in the church that are vaunting themselves as being superior to others, or who are allowing themselves to be viewed as being superior to others, simply because they engage in this form of ecstatic speech, accepting the honor that, due to accepted societal constructs, would naturally come their way as a result.  Paul acknowledges their activity, but indicates that it is not being performed in the right spirit, which is that of love---the greater gift and way that is beyond comparison. 

He does not pick on speaking in tongues, but goes on to treat other perceived gifts in the same way, writing “And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains,” which appears to be a nod towards the Jesus tradition and His statements about faith, “but do not have love, I am nothing” (13:2).  This “nothing” makes for quite the contrasting statement, because if somebody indeed prophesied, excelled in the revelation of mysteries, demonstrated knowledge, and had a commendable faith, they would enjoy the adulation of others, with a commensurate increase in their honor status.  However, if a self-sacrificial, other-preferring, serving, equalizing love was not the basis for all of these things---if these things were motivated by love of glory and pursuit of honor, then as far as Paul was concerned, it was all meaningless.  In fact, in a bit of a paradox, it stood apart from honor and was instead a source of shame, because it did not function to the accrual of honor for Jesus.  With the sheer number of attributions, it may be reasonable to presume that Paul may have had one particular individual in mind with the statement of verse two.    

With verse three, we hear “If I give away everything I own, and if I give over my body in order to boast, but do not have love, I receive no benefit” (13:3).  The use of “boast” makes us mindful of the constant jockeying for status and honor that was a component of the culture.  Again, this seems as though it could be directed towards a single individual within the Corinthian congregation.  If that is so, we can then hear Paul, while he is most certainly ascribing honor to love (and probably the one that is thought to embody love), taking aim at various members of the community, pricking the conscience of a number of those that are assembled and listening to the reading of his letter, as they hear “Love is patient, love is kind, it is not envious.  Love does not brag, it is not puffed up.  It is not rude, it is not self-serving, it is not easily angered or resentful.  It is not glad about injustice, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (13:4-7).  Clearly, some of these things have no place in the church of Christ, nor should they be on display between and among the members of that body.  Envy, bragging, puffery, rudeness towards those inside the church, that would occupy a lower place in the social order outside the church, along with self-serving behavior, would stem from the pursuit of honor.

With all that has been said to this point, we should be sufficiently capable of catching the ethos of the remainder of chapter thirteen, as we listen to Paul in concert with his original audience and hear: “Love never ends.  But if there are prophecies, they will be set aside; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be set aside.  For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways” (13:8-11).  All of these things that are being employed so as to gain individual honor will come to an end.  What’s more, Paul equates the pursuit of honor as then in effect as little more than childish ways, which is ironic, in that children had no ability to function in the honor and shame culture---they stood outside.  An adult---a mature member of the body of Christ---does not engage in such ultimately meaningless pursuits, though society would expect them to do so, especially if they stand in opposition to that which God expects from those that constitute His kingdom.  “Paul continues on to write “For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known.  And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love” (13:12-13).  True honor will come from demonstrations of love that are not concerned with individual honor but with the honor of the one that is ostensibly being served. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Unity, The Body & Concern For Honor

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body---though  many---are one body, so too is Christ.  For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.  Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-13  (NET)

Building on his thinking concerning the equality of Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, and ostensibly male and female, and seeking to create a unity and outwardly focused spirit of service amongst the members of the church body, Paul picks up on the theme of these two verses and writes: “So now there are many members, but one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor in turn can the head say to the foot, ‘I do not need  you.’” (12:20-21)  Why would a body desire to cripple itself by demeaning some functions while elevating others?  There is a trace of a sense that what may have been going on here is that the body of Corinthian believers were actually attempting to coerce those who did not exercise the type of spiritual gifts that were deemed to be more honorable (both inside and outside of the church) to leave the association. 

If this is the case, Paul certainly could not abide this.  He continues: “On the contrary, those members that seem to be weaker are essential, and those members we consider less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our un-presentable members are clothed with dignity, but our presentable members do not need this” (12:22-24a).  Though we may have read these words many times before, once we have the honor and shame culture squarely in view, and once we see how that culture has been carried into the church in a way that is clearly not appropriate, we can no longer read these words about “weaker,” “honor,” and “dignity” in the same way.  At the same time, Paul qualifies his usage, using words like “seem to be” when referencing those that are thought of as being weaker, along with “we consider” when speaking of those thought of as “less honorable.”  Surely this is meant to be provocative.

With what comes next, Paul picks up on a prominent feature of the Jesus tradition, together with its teaching about the kingdom of God and the enactment of that teaching through its meal practice, which is that of the first becoming last and the last becoming first.  Unity and equality with no divisions leaps directly to the fore when he writes “Instead, God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the body, but the members have mutual concern for one another” (12:24b-25).  There appears to be a distinct last as first and first as last construct there, and mutual concern is a key.  With an active ethic of the preferring of the other, regardless of status, Jews and Greek are to have mutual concern for each other.  Slaves and free are to have mutual concern for each other.  Men and women, by extension, are to have mutual concern for each other.  This mutual concern must move beyond sentiment, resulting in actions that demonstrate that mutual concern, with mutual concern over-riding societal constructs that would normally function to limit and govern such actions.  In that same frame of thought, we then continue on to read “If one member suffers, everyone suffers with it.  If a member is honored,” with this honor assigned through the court of public opinion, “all rejoice with it” (12:26).

Paul continues on to write “Now you are Christ’s body, and each of you is a member of it” (12:27).  Could there be any greater honor or source of honor?  To that Paul adds “And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, gifts of leadership, different kinds of tongues” (12:28).  W remain careful to not hear Paul creating spiritual hierarchies, as that would seem to run counter to the movement of the entire letter in which Paul seeks to devalue and destroy the accepted honor constructs that have no place in the church.  We need to keep in mind Paul’s insistence on the equal importance of all members when we read “Not all are apostles, are they?  Not all are prophets, are they?  Not all are teachers, are they?  Not all perform miracles, do they?  Not all have gifts of healing, do they?  Not all speak in tongues, do they?  Not all interpret, do they?” (12:29-30) 

Though it will be the case that not every member exhibits these types of spiritual gifts, that does not mean that they are not equally valuable or that their spiritual gifts are not equally honorable, so these categories should not be employed to create authoritarian hierarchies in the church, nor should this be construed as some type of list of “spiritual gifts.”  In fact, Paul, after what seems like an elevation of these particular “offices,” appears to engage his hearers in a transition away from thinking that elevates these offices and their associated gifts, especially if we are not going to limit the expression of the Spirit of God to certain definable categories, expressing that there are greater gifts that are perhaps deserving of even more honor when he writes “But you should be eager for the greater gifts.  And now I will show you a way that is beyond comparison” (12:31).     

Monday, February 27, 2012

Divisions, Spiritual Gifts & Honor (part 3 of 3)

Paul goes on to stress the need for unity within the church body, regardless of the spiritual gifts that are being expressed.  We continue to hear an effort to level out the believers, undoubtedly lifting up some while lowering others, and decimating hierarchies that are or have been constructed upon the standards of the surrounding world.  Honor and shame approbations, as popularly enacted and recognized, are not going to have any place within the church of Christ.  Consequently, believers that exercise what are considered to be the more prominent spiritual gifts, are not going to have a place or position above those whose spiritual gifting are not so obvious or familiar. 

Paul writes “For just as the body is one and yet has many members, all the members of the body---though many---are one body, so too is Christ” (12:12).  This use of “one and yet… many,”  followed by “many… are one,” most assuredly picks up on the “different, same, each, and all” pattern that has already been on offer from Paul.  Continuing in this mold, Paul goes on: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.  Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit.  For in fact the body is not a single member but many” (12:13-14).  In this type of association, there is simply no place for elevating one member at the expense of another. 

The practices that would have gained one honor in another association, such as speeches of wisdom and knowledge, healings, the performance of miracles, prophecy, discerning spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, do not function that way within the church that represents the kingdom of God, and which is composed of divine image bearers so as to both individually and corporately reflect the Creator God into the world.  The fact that there is to be no stratification (especially around the table---the way that the church gathered) based on spiritual gifting, and that not all were expected to exercise the same gifting, is reinforced when we read “If the foot says, ‘Since I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it does not lose its membership in the body because of that.  And if the ear says, ‘Since I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,’ it does not lose its membership in the body because of that” (12:15-16). 

Indeed, the body (whether the human body or the body of Christ that is the church), demands a multiplicity of what are, in the end, equally valid functions for proper engagement with its environment.  Though some functions, such as seeing or being able to use one’s hands, seem far more important than others, those functions are radically dependent on other functions.  Beyond that, “If the whole body were an eye, what part would do the hearing?  If the whole were an ear, what part would exercise the sense of smell?  But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as He decided.  If they were all the same member, where would the body be?” (12:17-19).  So not only is each and every member of the body a valuable component that aids in proper functioning, but each member must do what it has been ordained to do, lest the whole of the body be limited in its functionality. 

So not only is there to be no assignment of special honor to any particular gifts, but there should be no striving for emulation of another’s gift.  How can we say that?  Well, if there is no particular honor associated with a dramatic gift such as speaking in tongues, then there will not be attempts at mimicry that may ultimately stem not from a desire to serve and expand the kingdom of God, but from jealousy or covetousness with an eye towards accruing honor and enhancing one’s position in the association and within society.  Rather, each member will seek to exercise the indwelling of the Spirit, which is evidenced by the acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord, in ways that will benefit the body and enhance its health and functionality, and this will manifest itself in an unlimited number of ways.  With this understood, and understood alongside knowledge of the fact that Paul is dealing with issues specific to Corinth (with the outcome of his dealing with the issues---that towards which he is driving---universally applicable for Christians for all time), we can toss out any thinking that has Paul constructing systemic lists of spiritual gifts, along with any thinking that one must evidence one of the spiritual gifts listed in chapter twelve of First Corinthians (or taking tests to determine spiritual gifting in accordance with this list) in order to determine if one has truly been gifted with the Spirit of God. 

Divisions, Spiritual Gifts & Honor (part 2 of 3)

Now we are in a position to be able to hear about the “gifts of the Spirit” in a different and perhaps more enlightened way than we have ever previously experienced.  We have honor and shame constructs in mind.  We know that there are divisions and factions within the church, and we here note that it the text leads us to believe that some of this fracturing is linked to speech acts and the accumulation of honor associated with the ability to offer up eloquent speech (in accordance with societal norms).  We are aware of concerns regarding the meal practice, and that this meal practice, more than anything else, was a lamentable demonstration of the importation of the societal values of the surrounding culture into the life of the body of Christ.  It is incumbent upon us to bear these things in mind, and to hear the words of the apostle from the position of being seated at a meal table.  At that meal table, we would be able to look around us, mentally registering the results of the functioning of the honor and shame culture, the divisions that Paul has referenced, and the fact that our meal practice looks quite a bit different from that of the Jesus tradition (and apparently, from that which Paul first taught them).    

With that said, we read: “Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit.  And there are different ministries, but the same Lord.  And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone” (12:4-6).  Given the cultural context in which differences are celebrated and quite determinative of one’s standing, Paul’s repetitive employment of “different… but… same” is key.  It is a significant component of the theme of corporate unity that underlies the whole of the letter and most certainly chapters twelve through fourteen.  He continues, writing “To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all” (12:7).  Here, in much the same mode as his use of “different” and “same,” Paul deploys “each” and “all.”  Expounding upon the “different,” “same,” “each,” and “all” statements, Paul writes “For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit” (12:8).  It must be pointed out that, if we take seriously the use of different, same, each, and all, it is impossible to see a hierarchical function in the list of spiritual gifts to which Paul makes reference.  Paul is not stressing that one gift is more important that another, or that one gift somehow stands further down the list of importance, for that would actually militate against the point that he is making in regards to the body.

Continuing, Paul indicates that God gives “to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues” (12:9-10).  This use of “to another” reminds us that this is not a vertical listing.  It is a linear and horizontal listing.  All, for Paul, are equally valid and equally honorable manifestations of the Spirit, as Paul rounds out this particular rhetorical flourish with “It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as He decides to each person, who produces all these things” (12:11).  The reference to the Spirit’s activity informs the hearer that any honor to be assigned is not to be assigned to the person through whom the gift is being enacted, but to the Spirit (and the God) that is producing the action. 

As something of an aside, we must resist the tendency to elevate any of these gifts or to devalue any of these gifts, while also resisting the tendency to think of the last items on the list as spiritual leftovers.  However, it may be of interest to us, as it relates to our study, that Paul does mention speaking in tongues and the interpretation of tongues towards the end of his list.  Again, for those that would allow lists to function in a “first to last” movement, this would not be to demean these practices in any way.  Instead, might it be possible that they are placed where they are strictly for function, so that those gifts will be in mind as Paul moves forward?  This may not be far-fetched, as not only is speaking in tongues mentioned again at the close of chapter twelve, and at the opening of chapter thirteen, but it is the primary subject matter of chapter fourteen. 

Also, it must also be noted (and noted well), that Paul is not attempting to offer up an exhaustive list of the giftings of the Spirit.  Rather, just as is the case with the whole of the letter, he is dealing with issues related to this church, with what he knows about this church, and the actions in the church that are resulting in a setting that runs counter to that which is expected from those that represent and model out the kingdom of God before the world.  Surely, we are not willing to place limitations on God’s working through His people, through the same Spirit that raised up Jesus from the dead, by indicating that this list of actions found in the first half of chapter twelve of the first letter to Corinth is an actual and limited list of the ways in which the Spirit manifests itself.  Clearly, this list is not meant to be systematic.  It is most likely that Paul could have gone on to make reference to other activities within the church as evidences of the gifting of the Spirit, but it might be the case that these were the activities that were most related to the problems at hand within the church.  It is also interesting to point out that, though the performance of all of these things could lead to the accrual of honor and status, more than half of Paul’s list have to do with public speech acts.   

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Divisions, Spiritual Gifts & Honor (part 1 of 3)

Though the divisions within the Corinthian church are obvious when we have Paul mentioning the factions that are aligned with various teachers or apostles (I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas), they don’t quite come to the fore unless we are attuned to the cultural situation.  Divisions, or stratifications, as would have been common within the variety of voluntary associations in Corinth, were based largely on wealthy and social status, which were linked with one’s honor standing.  We can actually see this quite readily with Paul’s discussion of the Lord’s Supper, with the criticisms that are leveled at the wealthier members of the community of believers. 

An unfortunate reality of the Corinthians fellowship at the meals that were held in remembrance of the Jesus (the Lord’s Supper), was that they were conducted in much the same manner as the meals of other associations that would also include a commemoration or honoring of their object of worship.  The make-up of the church in Corinth would have ranged the entirety of the socioeconomic scale, reflecting the constitution of the city at large.  The meals of the associations, which existed for a variety of reasons, would have been divided and stratified based on social and economic status.  Those with wealth and honor would eat the best food and wine, being served first, whereas those with lesser means, traveling down the socioeconomic scale and the honor roll, would eat food and wine of much lower quality, or perhaps none at all (we can think of the story of Jesus turning the water into wine for an excellent example from the Jesus tradition).  As evidenced by what can be seen in the eleventh chapter, this was very much occurring in the Corinthian church. 

There, Paul writes “Now in giving you the following instruction I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse.  For in the first place, when you come together as a church I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it.  For there must in fact be divisions among you, so that those of you who are approved may be evident” (11:17-19).  Based on a very basic knowledge of the culture, with an awareness of associations and their meal practices, we can see that the divisions here mentioned go beyond alignment with a particular individual, and that they are reflective of standard practice.  Also, we have to be clued in to the fact that those who are “approved” are those with honor---those who have status in, and the respect of the community-at-large, though this should have no bearing on their standing in the church.  Paul continues: “Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper.  For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper.  One is hungry and another becomes drunk.  Do you have not have houses so that you can eat and drink?  Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing?  What should I say to you?  Should I praise you?  I will not praise you for this” (11:20-22). 

The language of honor and shame should heavily influence our reading of these passages.  Also, we should take note that it is Paul’s treatment of the standard division-inducing practices that were common to their world, and of their being put on display at the Christian meal gathering that included an honoring of Jesus while also hearkening to His meal practices that were designed to show forth the messianic banquet that denoted the coming of God’s kingdom and rule.  This, in a telling way, precedes Paul’s going on to deal with “spiritual gifts” (12:1).  We should most definitely hear Paul, through his treatment of meal practice and his decrial of division and giving weight to those considered more honorable, forming the basis for what comes next in his letter.  Also, though a review of it has no place here, we cannot underestimate the importance of the fact that the entire letter builds upon itself, and it has been very much building to this point in the letter. 

If we pick up at the eleventh chapter, without considering all that comes before it, and attempt to make analogies or applications without a consideration of context, we’re going to miss the force of Paul’s critique and what follows.  To be sure, he has dealt with a number of issues in getting to this point, but there is nothing that takes up more of his attention than the issue of spiritual gifts, and they take up a large measure of his attention within a letter directed to a church that is overly concerned with issues of honor and shame and are allowing that construct to dictate the functioning of the church.  The “spiritual gifts” are the subject of chapters twelve, thirteen, and fourteen---the largest section of the letter by far.  The practices of the church, and the way that honor was being assigned within the church loom large as we delve into chapter twelve. 

The Corinthian congregation has been prepared for this special attunement by all that has been covered in the letter up to that point, especially so that Paul can be heard as doing more than offering a list of spiritual gifts in the first part of the chapter.  We join the Corinthian believers at their meal gathering that has been stratified based on honor concerns, fully realizing the potential honor gathering opportunities linked to public speech acts, and hear Paul say “With regard to spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.  You know that when you were pagans you were often led astray by speechless idols, however you were led.  So I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is cursed,’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (12:1-2).  Paul makes it clear that everyone, without exception, that refers to Jesus as Lord (a public speech act) is motivated by the Spirit of God.  We can hear this as a leveling out of the church body.  Regardless of the quantity or type of speech acts that Paul will go on to detail, the entire body of believers stands on equal footing, spiritually speaking and when it comes to honor---all have the Spirit of God operable within them---when they call Jesus “Lord.” 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Honor & The Act Of Speech (part 3 of 3)

Now, as we read through Pau’s Corinthian correspondence against the appropriate backdrop of the prizing of rhetorical skill and the honor competition and assignment associated with public speech acts, we get the distinct impression that Paul did not quite measure up in this area.  It appears that some of the Corinthian believers derided Paul, going so far as to question his apostolic credentials, simply because, in his speeches before the assembled church community, he failed to employ the rhetoric and rhetorical skill that was so-highly-valued.  At the same time however, Paul had no difficulty whatsoever in deploying his rhetorical arsenal in his written communications.

We see evidence of this attitude towards Paul in the second Corinthian letter, as we read “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speeches of no account.’” (10:10)  It seems that they were uncomfortable with the idea that the person to whom they pointed as the presumptive founder of their community was not able to command respect through his public speaking.  This goes a long way towards understanding the divisiveness in the Corinthian church that Paul references in the third chapter of the first letter.  Paul writes “For whenever someone says, ‘I am with Paul,’ or ‘I am with Apollos,’ are you not merely human?  What is Apollos really?  Or what is Paul?  Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow” (3:4-6). 

Apollos, according to the eighteenth chapter of Acts, “was an eloquent speaker, well-versed in the Scriptures.  He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and with great enthusiasm he spoke and taught accurately the facts about Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John.  He began to speak out fearlessly in the synagogue” (18:24b-26a).  Chapter nineteen commences with mention of Apollos in Corinth, while Paul is in Ephesus.  Apparently, Apollos put his skills to use in service of the church at Corinth, with his eloquent speech causing some to see him in a more positive light than Paul (read: more honorable).  We do not immediately surmise that Apollos was somehow in competition with Paul, but understanding the honor and shame culture, it is not difficult to figure out that his rhetorical abilities caused him to be assigned honor in a way to which Paul apparently did not have the same access. 

Paul, without condemning or criticizing Apollos, his speaking, his eloquence, or his learning, refocuses the Corinthian believers, criticizing them and their continued introduction of societal values into the church as they elevated and assigned honor to one based on accepted custom, making sure that they understood that both he and Apollos were nothing more than servants (diakonoi in Greek, those who were assigned to “wait on tables” in Acts 6), and that honor was to be assigned to the one that they served (both the believers and God).  Paul stresses the unity and equality between he and Apollos in their role of servants, disavowing the attempts at elevation and emphasizing the need for the same amongst the congregation of believers, writing “The one who plants and the one who waters work as one, but each will receive his reward according to his work.  We are coworkers belonging to God.  You are God’s field, God’s building” (3:8-9). 

Before he brings up Apollos, who is renowned for his eloquent speech and his ability to employ lofty speech in his presentation and defense of the Gospel (thereby explaining Paul’s making mention of Apollos), Paul defends this recognized deficiency in his own abilities.  Naturally, though he may see his abilities as being deficient, he believes that the message that he preaches, and the effects that it produces in those that hear it and live it, more than makes up for his perceived failings.  With a solid framework in place, we now better understand what Paul is getting at when he writes “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God.  For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.  And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling.  My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God” (2:1-5). 

This very thing that he did not want to see, which is faith based on human wisdom, is what was happening among those that were inclined to identify themselves with Apollos, in alignment with the prevailing principles of honor and shame.  This also illuminates Paul’s asking them “are you not merely human?”  Again, Paul takes no issue with Apollos.  Indeed, Paul might have desired to possess Apollos’ abilities.  At the same time, what he saw in Corinth, as the people were perhaps reacting to Apollos more based on his abilities rather than on the message that he faithfully delivered to the best of his abilities, served as a tremendous example to Paul.  In the end, he would rather see that the message of the Gospel (Jesus as Lord of all) and its cross (humiliation, suffering, weakness, cursing, shame) carry the day, for then there would be no doubt as to wherein lied the efficacy of the message.  Honor would not be assigned to the one that delivered the message, but to the one of whom the message spoke, and it would hopefully spark imitation of the supreme honoree along cross-shaped lines. 

We must approach this carefully, especially if we find ourselves in the midst of a Christian culture that decries deep learning as being somehow antithetical to the spirit of the Gospel.  Paul does not take issue with learning and the ability to speak persuasively.  He is taking issue with the response of the people, as they are continuing to value the standards of the kingdoms of man rather than the standards of the kingdom of God as demonstrated by Jesus, as outlined in the what they have would known about Him through the traditions that were being orally transmitted about Him (in word and deed), and as displayed through His cross.  Throughout this first letter to Corinth, Paul’s concern is with the body and its unity, and he adamantly opposes anything that might throw that body into disharmony, divisiveness, or stratifications along customary lines in a way that would decrease the witness and the effect of the body of Christ.       

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Honor & The Act Of Speech (part 2 of 3)

Archaeology has uncovered an abundance of inscriptions in the city of Corinth that attest to the importance of the honor and shame system and the court of public opinion.  These inscriptions are honorific in nature, as would be expected, and serve to demonstrate what seems to be a near obsession with public honor.  Such inscriptions, obviously, would be encouraged by those being honored as it would cause the honorees to be viewed in the most positive light imaginable and by the widest possible cross-section of the populace (with this standing in for mass media). 

These inscriptions would run the gamut, extolling individuals for being loyal and generous, excelling in virtues while shunning vices, gracious tending to the affairs of others as much as he would his own, and living a life free from strife.  These things serve to adequately demonstrate the types of things that could lead, along with actions of public benefaction, to the accrual of honor.  A person feted in such ways would be accorded much honor in accordance with the value system of society, as confirmed by the ever-changing court of public opinion.  Conversely, disloyal behavior, stinginess, an excess of vice-like behavior, a selfish pre-occupation with one’s own affairs, and the production of strife were actions that would lead to the accrual of shame.

Given the high value placed on public opinion, we can understand the high value also placed on the use of rhetoric in the ancient world, as skilled speakers could do much to shape consensus, dragging public opinion concerning that which should be understood to be truly honorable in the direction desired by those that wished to either gain in status or cement their positions.  It is the importance of the orator in this regard, as not only would the orator have his own honor while also being employed in ways that would gain honor for others, that stands in the background and informs Paul’s words about eloquence and wisdom and status and identification with certain individuals in his first letter to Corinth. 

Eloquence, which was associated with wisdom, was associated with honor.  A highly effective public speaker would be viewed with much honor and could be employed to achieve the same for others by either “singing their praises” or shaping the consciousness of the community in such a way that they found themselves wishing to bestow honor in accordance with the actions of the one being so praised.  We cannot pass this by without acknowledging Paul’s focus on eloquent speech, understanding its function within the culture.  We must also acknowledge that glossolalia (speaking in tongues), which is also referenced in the letter to Corinth, is a speech act as well.  This particular type of speech act, which was associated with the gods, when performed publicly, was yet another means by which honor would be accrued. 

Paying attention to the value of the orator, we can peruse a papyrus fragment dating from 110 A.D., roughly fifty years beyond the time of the writing of Paul’s letter.  In that fragment we read “Pay to Licinius the rhetor,” rhetor being a specific type of orator (short for rhetorician---one specifically skilled in the art of rhetoric, which was a foundational component of the education system of the day and a valued tool for the shaping of opinion well employed by Paul), “the amount due him for the speeches in which Aurelius… was honored… in the gymnasium in the Great Serapeion, four hundred drachmas of silver.”  According to the first century Roman historian by the name of Tacitus, the amount of money that was paid to Licinius exceeded the wages paid to a Roman soldier for a year’s worth of service.  This serves to demonstrate the high value placed on this skill.  

Accordingly, as there was much money to be made, especially because the skill was put to use in connection with the pursuit of honor (or the conferring of shame---it served a dual role), training in such speech and writing was central to the education provided in the institutions of the day.  Indeed, the mastery of rhetorical speech was a potentially lucrative enterprise, serving to assist in the accrual of both wealth and public honor.  Again, the gaining of position in society, and by extension, within the institutions and associations of that society, whatever those may be, is connected to public speech acts.  Those that were more charismatic were able to serve themselves quite well.  Because of this, rhetorical speech was prized almost universally in the ancient world.  Romans, Greeks, and Jews, rich and poor alike, slaves and free, men and women, all enjoyed listening to the presentation of an eloquent speech riddled with lofty rhetoric.  In this way, the people that composed the church of Corinth were no different than the wider populace of Corinth and the ancient world, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Honor & The Act Of Speech (part 1 of 3)

An important first century Roman Stoic philosopher by the name of Seneca, in writing about honor from within an active and functioning honor and shame system, had this to say: “All our arguments start from this settled point, that honor is pursued for no other reason except because it is honor.”  This says much about the value system of the Greco-Roman world.  Though those of us that live within the confines of western civilization cannot readily relate to such a sentiment, primarily because the pursuit of honor has been primarily replaced by the pursuit of material possessions and wealth.  Though it can certainly be the case that wealth and material possessions were attendant with honor in Paul’s world, this would not necessarily be the case.  Even if our perception of honor and shame has been skewed, we can still peruse the wider world in order to find the systems of honor and shame still in operation much like it was in operation in first century Corinth.  Christians throughout the world still live within cultures in which one’s true status is largely determined by the values of honor and shame, and are in the enviable position of being able to more easily identify with and understand the situation with which Paul deals in his first letter to Corinth.  In a world so governed, the primary motivation for performing a good deed (public benefaction) or for living a life marked by virtue, was the attainment of honor. 

The opposite end of the spectrum from honor, of course, was shame.  A person might seek to increase his honor by publicly shaming a rival through insults, reproach, physical abuse, confiscation of property, and even public execution.  Making mention of Jesus at this point leads to a helpful aside, in that Jesus’ insistence that His disciples turn the other cheek, go the second mile, bless when cursed, and offer the undergarment when sued for the outer garment, gain substantial meaning when understood alongside concerns of honor and shame.  Everything that Jesus suggests be done, which He then lives out, would be immediately viewed as honor-disavowing and shame-accruing. 

So how exactly was it determined who was possessive of honor and who leaned towards the shameful end of the spectrum?  There was no formal system by which honor was assigned.  There were no checklists to follow.  Rather, public consensus, which is always shifting, plays the most important role.  The shifting sands of public consensus meant that one would always have to be on guard, not only performing according to wider public opinion, but also doing one’s level best to shape public opinion and drive the public debate concerning what is honorable and what is dishonorable/shameful.  We can refer to this loosely governing construct as the “court of public opinion.”  Now, many of us that are reading this may not live in societies that are shaped by honor and shame in a manner similar to the ancient world, but we can all understand the high value that is placed on the “court of public opinion.”  Politicians, first and foremost, live and die through rightly understanding the court of public opinion, attempting to craft their positions to reflect the wider sentiment, or, if given the opportunity, reshape that sentiment in a way that is more to their liking.  Even in this construct, which is broad and encompasses a wide swath of the public, some people’s opinions and positions are given more weight than others.

In Paul’s world, which included the influential and wealthy city of Corinth, governed by concerns with honor and shame, the court of public opinion was a formidable entity.  This was the body of people within one’s society which determined one’s social standing.  Naturally, the determinations were made by those that were already understood to be possessive of honor, thus their opinions were not exactly unbiased or altruistic, as they would not want to jeopardize their own status by approving and assigning honor to that which might run contrary to that which has brought them their own honor.  So even though public opinion is malleable, it is often monolithic.  Given the absence of mass-media, public opinion could not be shifted on a whim.  Given these things, social standing, whether honorable or dishonorable, is determined in accordance with society’s values.  One’s honor did not come from how one viewed oneself, but from how one was viewed by the public at large, and those already considered honorable more specifically.      

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Jesus Upends His Social Order

One of the most, if not the most important societal constructs in the world of Jesus’ day, was the construct of honor and shame.  It was the system of honor and shame that governed relationships in the ancient world.  One that was desirous of pursuing honor, while also being able to function at an honor-pursuit level within society (so this would not apply a child, woman, slave, leper, etc…), would take great pains to perform public actions that would not be damaging to one’s accrued honor, carefully avoiding activities or associations that would tend to bring shame.  Honor equaled prestige in the ancient world.  Honor was also considered to be a limited good, in that if one gained honor for themselves, it came at the expense of another person’s honor.  More honor for one equated to more shame for another, and one could gain honor for self by shaming another person. 

We can see this system at work in the records of the life and ministry of Jesus.  When Jesus is challenged, in addition to these challenges being akin to rabbinic debates, they are also contests of honor and shame.  If His challengers can defeat Him through their questions, asserting their superiority or demonstrating potential flaws in His reasoning or grasp of the law, then they will have shamed Him while gaining honor for themselves.  This could serve to stem the tide of His kingdom movement.  However, Jesus, who has attracted crowds and prestige, does not seek honor for Himself.  He is only concerned with His Father’s honor.  As a denizen of the first century Greco-Roman world and as a popular teacher that is increasingly viewed through messianic lenses during the course of His public ministry, He should be quite conscientious of the way that He is perceived by the public; instead, He appears to be almost completely unconcerned with the honor and shame system.  It almost seems as if He views it as being quite backwards, with actions seen as most honorable by the wider public perceived by Jesus as being shameful, and vice versa. 

At times, Jesus accepts the honors being afforded to Him, but generally, He only accepts honoring or honorific statements when they come from those that do not possess any public honor (tax collectors, lepers, those that have been possessed by demons, unclean women, etc…)  When the rich or the rulers attempt to honor Him, perhaps by calling Him “good,” He disavows the approbation.  He routinely speaks of the first being last and the last being first.  He interacts with tax collectors, who may have money and a measure of power, but are not looked upon as being honorable in the least.  He touches lepers.  He allows dishonorable women to touch Him.  He is more than happy to take the lowest place at a meal, eschewing the places of honor, and instructs His followers to do the same.  He washes the feet of  His disciples, which is the role of a slave and a reminder of the slave’s shameful place.  He allows children, who, as children, do not have a place in the honor and same pursuit (they do not have honor or shame accorded to them), to come to Him.  When they do, He tells those who are listening to Him that they must enter the kingdom of God as little children---unconcerned with the pursuit of honor or avoiding shame (which has nothing to do with a “childlike faith”).  He ultimately ends up on a cross, which was the lowest and most shameful place of all, going there willingly as He embraced the role of Israel for the world. 

These things (the honor and shame culture, along with Jesus’ treatment of this broad social construct) would have been well understood by Jesus’ followers and those that made up the churches that attempted to live out what it meant to be the renewed Israel that represented the rule of God through the remembrance of and reflection upon the orally transmitted Jesus tradition.  When Paul writes his letters, especially what are considered to be the early letters, there is no written record of the life of Jesus.  There are no Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as we have them in their present form.  Paul doesn’t have his own body of work or the letters from other apostles from which to draw, nor do the early believers.  They have the words of the apostles.  Those apostles shared their stories of Jesus (a relatively unified story to be sure, though with different emphases, as is obvious from the variety of presentations of the life of Jesus that we see in the Gospels) so that those who threw in their lot with the crucified and resurrected King (the church) might do their best to model out the example that He provided, as the movement of the kingdom of God began to spread through the world through the instrument of the church, motivated by the Spirit of God.  They too were to be motivated to eschew honor and embrace shame, especially if such brought glory to their King and to their God, extending the reach and rule of that Kingdom, as they conscientiously strived to bring heaven to earth by mimicking the counter-cultural behavior of Jesus. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Historical Context For The Gift Of Tongues (part 2 of 2)

Several of the mystery religions that inhabited the Greco-Roman world in which the church first developed also record the phenomenon of speaking on tongues.  These include the Persian cult of Mithra, the Egypt-based cult of Osiris, and the Dionysian, Eulusinian, and Orphic cults of Macedonia, Thrace, and Greece.  Lucian of Samosata, a reliable historian of the ancient world that lived in the second century, to whom we owe a debt because of his records concerning the meal practices of the Greco-Roman world, described an example of glossolalia in one of his written works.  In it, the ecstatic utterance was performed by somebody described as a roaming believer in the Syrian goddess that went by the name of “June” (the month is named after her).  Focusing on Corinth, the prevalence of cults that spoke in tongues, especially in what is the wider geographic area by which the city of Corinth was bounded, informs us that there would be a high degree of familiarity with the practice within the city.  This becomes especially poignant if we are to consider the geographical and cultural position in which Corinth was situated at the time of Christ, and a short time later, of Paul. 

Corinth was a very wealthy city, as it was a center of commerce.  Naturally, a city that is a center of commerce is also an intersection of culture as well.  Corinth was situated on the isthmus that connected the area of Achaia with that of Macedonia and Thrace, all of which, taken together (along with some islands), form the area generally referred to as Greece.  Situated on the isthmus, Corinth had two harbors, east and west, thus effectively connecting Asia with Italy (Rome most importantly) and by extension the rest of the known western world.  One can easily imagine Corinth’s being viewed as a quite attractive place to do business.  Owing to that, it would also be an ideal place from which to exert cultural influence, which probably accounts for the fact that Paul spends so much time with this church, taking great pains to influence it in its unique role as an embassy for the kingdom of God, and working diligently to see that it behaves in ways that will appropriately represent the King and the kingdom to which it claims its allegiance.  At the same time, we can also understand how and why accepted practices of the wider culture could creep into this church, as its members were constantly exposed to the ideologies and practices of practically the entire world, and almost always within what would have been a competitive commercial environment. 

Not only was Corinth a center of commerce, but it was center for sport, as it would play host to the Isthmian games (similar to the Olympics) every two years, while hosting the Imperial and Caesarean games every four years.  This, of course, would attract tourists, increasing the opportunities for commerce as well as its cultural importance.  Though Corinth would have had its share of wealthy inhabitants, it would also have had its poor, with some in-between, therefore reflecting the variety of social levels which characterized the large cities of the ancient world.  As we consider Paul’s letters to the church of Corinth, and specifically deal with the issue of speaking in tongues and what it would represent within the church and to those outside the church, as the church lived and worshiped and exercised their spiritual gifts within a culture largely dependent on constructs of honor and shame (the pursuit of honor for social advancement in public and in private associations), we cannot allow ourselves to forget the underlying and quite visible and accepted social stratifications of the ancient world. 

It is also quite interesting to note that the very term “glossolalia,” which is used to denote what is generally believed to be the uniquely Christian practice of speaking in tongues, is a term that is in wide use long before the church is on the scene.  This lets us know that it is not a term that needed to originate with Christians so as to explain their ecstatic utterances.  They were simply able to employ a term already in use, to describe a relatively widespread and known practice, with the term adequately conveying, for the Christians, the same information it would have conveyed on behalf of non-Christians---speaking in tongues while possessed by a god.  Glossolalia did not describe something new that originated with or in the church, but was merely adopted and adapted, by Christians, as an accepted religious practice that was full of meaning and richly symbolic.    

It is undeniable that what can be seen in the church today bears a heavy resemblance (identical?) to the occurrences of ecstatic tongues that took place in these ancient cults well before the day of Pentecost, to which is generally looked as the time of the outpouring of the Spirit that has, since then, enabled the ecstatic speech of Christians, though there are marked differences between both Christian, non-Christian, and pre-Christian speaking in tongues from what is recorded in the second chapter Acts.  Let us not be naïve.  In all cases of speaking in tongues, based upon the facts of history, the one performing the action is said to be doing so under the influence of their god.  Speaking in tongues is not a uniquely Christian practice by any means.  A large number of studies have revealed the fact that speaking in tongues is present in non-Christian religions all around the world.  We can find it practiced, distinct from the church, in China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Siberia, Arabia, and Burma, just to name a few locations.  Glossolalia can be heard among Eskimos, in Japanese séances on the island of Hokkaido, from the shamans of Zar cult in Ethiopia, in Haitian Voodoo, and quite extensively in African tribal religions.  In each case, it functions differently for the group, though it will generally sound the same.      

Historical Context For The Gift Of Tongues (part 1 of 2)

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. – 1 Corinthians 13:1  (NET)             

Whenever the topic of “speaking in tongues” is considered, a common misperception, together with a failure in basic knowledge of the subject, is advanced.  That common misperception is that “speaking on tongues,” or “glossolalia,” somehow began with Christians.  Whether one is “for” or “against” the idea of speaking in tongues, which is generally considered to be an ecstatic form of speech that is unintelligible to both the speaker and any hearers as it does not bear resemblance to any known languages, it is impossible to engage in a discussion without first considering the fact that the practice of speaking in tongues predates Christianity.  In fact, records of its historical practice, akin to the way in which it is practiced by millions of Christians around the world today, can be found centuries prior to the advent of the church, and in complete isolation from the influence of God’s chosen people Israel. 

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the congregation of Corinth, deals extensively with the issue of spiritual gifts, with that of speaking in tongues receiving what appears to be an inordinate amount of focus and attention.  This particular spiritual gifting appears to be of grave concern to the Apostle, and we can only have any hopes for understanding the reasons for Paul’s dealing with the subject in the context of the body of people that stood in representation of the kingdom of God, if we understand a bit of the history of the actions, its place in the culture, what it signified, how it was received, how it functioned, and in what it would result. 

So yes, as we gaze through the pages of recorded history, we will find that there have been many occasions where people have spoken in what has been referred to as ecstatic language.  The records indicate that this is no different, in practice and in appearance, than what is to be seen in the contemporary Christian practice of speaking in tongues (ecstatic language).  We also must understand that the given reasons for the speech have remained unchanged, and that they are merely adapted to the new situation.  Most of the accounts of ecstatic speech predate Pentecost (though we will have to admit to a helpful distinction between what is recounted in the second chapter of Acts and the activity that is being addressed in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church) and were of decidedly non-Christian origin (this should give pause to Christians that decry, perhaps quite rightly, the fusion of pagan holidays into Christianity, rejecting the celebration of Easter and its associated traditions or Christmas and its associated traditions because of their questionable origins, while uncritically embracing pre-Christian acts such as speaking in tongues that have also been carried over into the church).  As the simple facts of the matter will serve to demonstrate, Christians cannot say, with any degree of confidence, that every occurrence of glossolalia (again, this is not necessarily what we see in the Acts two) must be an expression of the will of God.  Many, of course, subscribe to this view, though it is historically untenable and does not withstand an even moderate degree of scrutiny. 

The very first recorded cases of that which can be termed as glossolalia, or ecstatic speech attributed to the activity of the gods upon a believer, goes as far back as 1100 B.C.  On that occasion, it is a worshiper of the Egyptian God Amun that attracted attention to himself through making sounds in a strange, ecstatic tongue.  He reported himself to have been possessed by the god.  Seven hundred years later, the famous Greek philosopher, Plato, demonstrated that he was quite well acquainted with the phenomenon of speaking in tongues, as he made reference to several families who habitually practiced ecstatic speech, with prayers and utterings offered as they were supposedly possessed by the spirit of their gods.  He would also go on to point out that these practices had even been said to have brought physical healing to those who engaged in them.  Accordingly, and because they had no reason to presume otherwise, Plato, and those contemporary with him, casually and confidently asserted that these occurrences were in fact caused by some type of divine inspiration.  It was his suggestion that the god simply took possession of the mind during this state, inspiring him with utterances that he could neither understand nor interpret. 

In the century prior to the coming of the Christ, the poet Virgil, speaking of the Sybilline priestess that lived on the island of Delos, described her activity of speaking in ecstatic tongues.  This was explained by her being in union with the god Apollo.  This was said to have happened while she meditated in a haunted cave, amidst what was described as the eerie sounds of the wind, as it played strange music through the narrow crevices of the rocks. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Son of Man, The Temple & The Hour (part 2 of 2)

Tying off Jesus’ Temple-fall-and-coming-of-the-Son-of-Man related speech, and continuing a clearly pronounced connective theme, Matthew writes “When Jesus had finished saying all these things” (26:1a).  There is a heavy synoptic use of “these things,” and the fact that it appears in a related passage in Peter’s second letter, its usage here simply cannot escape our attention or be at all considered as a random placement.  Matthew, most especially it would seem wants to draw our attention to the fact that all that we have just heard from Jesus, from the fourth verse of the twenty-fourth chapter, through the final verse of the twenty-fifth chapter, was presented in relation to the fall of the Temple and the coming of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days for the purpose of receiving His kingdom.

This, of course, includes Jesus’ insistence that “as for that day and hour no one knows it---not even the angels in heaven---except the Father alone” (24:36).  What Jesus is saying here could not be any more obvious.  In fact, by this point, it would take a willful refusal to acknowledge the point that is being made, or to hear Jesus talking about anything but the fall of the Temple when He makes this statement.  This probably does not even need to be said, but to somehow connect this to some kind of rapture or to the return of Jesus to earth, considering the incredibly obvious context that is on offer, strains credulity to the point of breaking. 

Throughout the whole of Matthew twenty-four, Jesus has never once wavered from answering the question that was posed by His disciples, and which was prompted by His statement about the Temple.  By way of review, we can read “Now as Jesus was going out of the Temple courts and walking away, His disciples came to show Him the Temple buildings” (24:1).  In response to what He sees, Jesus says “Do you see all these things?  I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another.  All will be torn down!” (24:2)  His disciples, who did not imagine that He was talking about anything but the Temple being torn down, with not one stone being left on another, which would have been catastrophic and unimaginable to their way of thinking, say “Tell us, when will these things happen?” (24:3b)  To that is added, by Matthew, “And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3c)  We know that the question is based upon the quite popular seventh chapter of Daniel, and that the coming of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days, and the concordant receipt of His kingdom will mark the end of one age and the beginning of another.  Apart from that, we remember that Mark and Luke simply have the disciples adding, “And what will the sign that all these things are about to take place?”  Yes, the disciples know that Jesus is speaking about the fall of the Temple and want to know how they will know when it is that this singularly cataclysmic event will occur. 

In response, we find that “Jesus answered them” (24:4a).  Jesus did not set about answering an unasked question about the end of time or about the time that He would return to earth following His crucifixion, Resurrection, and ascension.  Such an idea is nowhere in sight.  No, He answered the question that He was asked.  No, we do not always expect this from Jesus, but then again, He is not answering a challenge from the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, or experts in the law.  He is answering His disciples, and as usual, when it comes to them, He is speaking plainly.  Yes, to the crowds He speaks in mysterious language, but He gives answers to His disciples.  So Jesus answers them.  His answer begins in verse five of chapter twenty-four, and it runs to the end of chapter twenty-five. 

The entire time, the focus of the answer remains unchanged, though He does provide interesting information in the process---unexpected information (unexpected in terms of Mark and Luke’s presentation of the disciples’ question, but anticipated in the question from the disciples as presented by Matthew) about the connection of the fall of the Temple to the time of the Son of Man’s coming to the Ancient of Days.  He even reinforces the connection, speaking about the Son of Man beyond our thrust text, repeating the term three times in rapid succession, from verse thirty-seven to verse forty-four.  In all three cases, the Son of Man comes to receive His kingdom at an unexpected time---no one knows the hour.  The Temple is going to fall.  Jesus says that His disciples can count on this happening.  When?  No one knows the hour, but here’s the types of things that will precede the event, and it is to be conceptually linked with the Son of Man appearing before the Ancient of Days.   

Throughout the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew (as well as Mark thirteen and Luke twenty-one), Jesus gives His disciples a great deal of information, clueing them in so that they will have a decent idea as to when the Temple is going to fall.  It bears repeating however, that He could not be more clear that they will not know the exact moment that events will coalesce and conspire to bring down the Temple.  When it comes to that, “as for that day and hour, no one knows it---not even the angels,” the ones that will be sent out to gather His elect (24:31) and that accompany the Son of Man when He comes in His glory (25:31), “except the Father alone.” 

With the repeated mentions of the Son of Man, which seems to override the importance of fall of the Temple and truly becomes the point of the discourse, we get the sense that Jesus’ words, though initially prompted by the question about the Temple, becomes less about them knowing the exact time of the Temple’s collapse, and more about them knowing that when it happens, and when Jesus’ prediction comes true, that they can then know that He, the Son of Man, has had His universal dominion confirmed and that He indeed rules as King and Lord of all.  If we had been hearing Jesus speak, we may not have been able to know the hour that the Temple was going to come crashing down, but we could be certain that, according to His words, when it did, we could be supremely confident that He ruled as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  Indeed, we can look to the place where the Temple once stood, see that it stands there no longer, and know that Jesus spoke truly, that He rules His kingdom, and that He demands our participation in that kingdom along the lines outlined in the narrative found in Matthew.  Is it not that knowledge that should animate our lives in this day?     

Friday, February 17, 2012

Son of Man, The Temple & The Hour (part 1 of 2)

But as for that day and hour no one knows it---not even the angels in heaven---except the Father alone. - Matthew 24:36  (NET)

If we hold to the idea that the early church, having rightly comprehended what Jesus meant by His fall-of-the-Temple-focused discourse (as recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21), tightly connected the fall of the Temple with the coming of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days in order to receive His kingdom, then the heavy inclusion of all of the Son of Man language throughout the Gospels makes even greater sense.  While we will not take the time to review all of the mentions of the Son of Man, it is worth taking a bit of time to review and to draw out some conclusions and inferences that would have been obvious to Jesus’ original audience. 

In a superficial review, we notice that John has the fewest uses of “Son of Man.”  Mark clocks in with the next fewest, while both Matthew and Luke are replete with its usage (Luke nearly doubling Mark’s count, while Matthew more than doubles Mark’s usage).  While John obviously pursues its agenda on a different path than do the synoptics, Mark’s relative restraint in using the term is understandable if it is, in fact, cautiously and expectantly composed before the fall of the Temple.  Of course, we do not simply assert that a lack of details in indicative of a pre-fall composition, as Mark could certainly have been just as precise and non-verbose, as opposed to his evangelistic counterparts, while writing after the Temple’s fall. 

Once we hear correctly and contextually hear Jesus’ Son of Man language within His crystal clear, prophetical, and predictive speech about the coming fall of the Temple, doing so in the light of Daniel’s seventh chapter, we do ourselves a tremendous disservice if we do not reflect on a few of its appearances prior to the Temple speech in which Jesus connects the Temple’s fall with the Son of Man’s arrival and kingdom acquisition.  Sticking with Matthew’s presentation for our purposes here, we find ourselves in a state of superior comprehension of the words of Jesus when we hear such things as “Whenever they persecute you in one place, flee to another.  I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (10:23); “The Son of Man will send His angels, and they will gather from His kingdom everything that causes sin as well as all lawbreakers” (13:41); “For the Son of Man will come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will reward each person according to what He has done” (16:27)---a clear Daniel seven reference; and “I tell you the truth, there are some standing here who will not experience death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (16:28).  We can comfortably equate the last of these mentions of the Son of Man with the fall of the Temple, as would be made clear later in Matthew.  For the followers of Jesus, seeing the Son of Man coming in His kingdom was the same thing as seeing the Temple fall. 

We must also make mention of the fact that talk of “heaven and earth,” in that day, was a common way of referencing the Temple.  This leads us back to consider that which precedes Jesus’ statement that “as for that day and hour no one knows it---not even the angels in heaven---except the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36).  Just before Jesus says this, and immediately after He speaks about the generation that will see the Temple fall, Jesus says “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away” (24:35).  This, though the synoptic authors disagree in so many of their details in their presentation of Jesus’ Temple-and-Son-of-Man focused apocalyptic discourse, is identically reported by the three evangelists---a fact that, like the other identically reported statement that preceded it (concerning the generation that would see the fall of the Temple), should not escape our attention.  Now, do we let our imaginations wander about, causing us to hear Jesus going off on a tangent about the end of the world when He speaks these words, or do we hear Him within context, speaking in a very understandable way?  Obviously, we should choose the latter option. 

Jesus has not changed the subject.  Jesus has not gone off on a tangent.  He is speaking about the fall of the Temple.  He is continuing to answer the question posed to Him at the beginning of the chapter, following His declaration that not one stone of the Temple would be left upon another, as to when this would happen.  He has given the bulk of His answer, telling His disciples and other hearers the types of things that they would see and which should prepare them for the Temple’s fall, and re-asserts the finality of His prediction when He says that “Heaven and earth,” the Temple, “will pass away, but My words,” perhaps this prediction, “will not pass away.”  In other words, Jesus says, “Oh yes, the Temple is going to fall.  You can count on it happening.”  Beyond that, we can hear Him making an existential claim, in that even though the Temple will pass away, His words, words that spring from the true Temple, will never pass away.  Also, because it is coincident with the fall of the Temple that Jesus (the Son of Man) will be going before the Father (the Ancient of Days) to receive His kingdom, those who are listening to Him, and those who come to believe in Him through the preaching of His disciples, can have confidence that His words are words that will endure.   

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Peter & The Temple (part 5 of 5)

As we round out this study, we now take the opportunity to bolster the conjecture in which we have been engaging concerning second Peter.  To get there, we look to Matthew.  As Jesus continues on with His discourse about the fall of the Temple, He says to “stay alert, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.  But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, He would have been alert and would not have let his house be broken into” (Matthew 24:42-43).  Because of what we have determined to be a possibility, which is that the author of second Peter is referencing the prediction that the Temple would indeed fall, again (if the letter is indeed composed before the fall of the Temple and the production of the Gospel of Matthew in the form in which we now have it), realizing that the author of the letter is relying on the oral tradition that surrounds Jesus’ talk of the fall of the Temple (the passing away of heaven and earth, along with the celestial bodies), we are not at all surprised when we hear him say “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (3:10a), as the analogy from the Jesus tradition is drafted into use. 

Along the same lines, if second Peter is being written with a knowledge of that which will eventually come to be codified and communicated in Matthew twenty-four, then we are also quite unsurprised to hear the regular Petrine references to Noah and the judgment of the flood, especially considering what we hear Jesus saying: “For just like the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be.  For in those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark” (24:37-38).  To that, Jesus adds “And they knew nothing until the flood came and took them all away.  It will be the same at the coming of the Son of Man” (24:39).  It cannot be repeated enough that this coming of the Son of Man is the Danielic coming of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days, which, according to Jesus, is to be thought of coincidentally with the fall of the Temple (a cataclysmic sign of judgment by Israel’s God to be sure) that He, according to the synoptic authors, has been predicting. 

If Jesus’ prediction is, in fact, in mind, and if questions concerning the legitimacy of His prediction and therefore the legitimacy of His ministry and therefore the legitimacy of the church and its proclamation concerning Him, then this provides an interesting avenue by which to approach something to be found in the first chapter of the letter, which is “Moreover, we possess the prophetic word as an altogether reliable thing.  You do well to pay attention to this as you would to a light shining in a murky place” (1:19a). 

In the third chapter, after insisting that the day of the Lord will come like a thief, a question is proffered: “Since all these things are to melt away in this manner,” as we remember the three uses of “these things” in the synoptic recounting of Jesus’ discourse (while also remembering that, if this is indeed written before the Temple’s fall, that there is no access to Matthew, but rather, only the oral tradition and possibly Mark, if it was written before the fall, though this particular letter seems to make reference to that which would find its way into the Matthean tradition), “what sort of people must we be?” (3:11)  Jesus proposes an answer to this question about the sort of people that His people must be as they wait for the fall of the Temple and the coming of the Son of Man to receive His kingdom.  He says “Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom the master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their food at the proper time?  Blessed is that slave whom the master finds at work when he comes.  I tell you the truth, the master will put him in charge of all his possessions” (24:45-47).  Jesus then goes on to provide a contrast with an evil slave. 

Jesus continues, saying “At that time,” the time when the Son of Man comes to the Ancient of Days and the Temple falls, “the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom” (25:1), with a further contrast between those that were wise and foolish in their preparation in relation to the coming of the bridegroom, who clearly stands in for the Son of Man for purposes of this parable.  Following that, Jesus offers up that which is referred to as “the parable of the talents,” saying “For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them” (25:14).  

Like the previously mentioned slaves, these slaves were all given certain responsibilities.  Continuing, as we continue to seek the answer asked by Peter, which was “what sort of people must we be?”, we hear Jesus say “When the Son of Man comes in His glory and all the angels with Him” (another telling mention of angels---not even the angels in heaven know when the Son of Man is going to come to the ancient of days), “then He will sit on His glorious throne.  All the nations will be assembled before Him,” as Daniel seven indicates, “and He will separate people from one another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on His left.  Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:31-34). 

To whom is Jesus referring when He speaks of sheep?  It is those to whom the Son of Man, the King, speaks and says “For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited Me in, I was naked and you gave Me clothing, I was sick and you took care of Me, I was in prison and you visited Me” (25:35-36).  He, as the Son of Man, the King, goes on to add: “I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for Me” (25:40).  If we are looking for an answer as to what sort of people we must be, this is as good as any, especially when the goats are described as those that did not do these things.    

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Peter & The Temple (part 4 of 5)

Though there are ongoing debates about the time frame for the production of the synoptic Gospels and of the second letter of Peter, and though there could certainly be written records that would be incorporated into the Gospels themselves that were composed at an early stage, it is generally accepted that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Mark preceding the other two) in the forms in which we now have them, were all composed roughly around the year seventy.  Some suggest an earlier dating for Mark, perhaps in the late sixties.  If true, this is not entirely problematic for our suggestion.  While we say this, it is more than possible that Mark did in fact write His Gospel before the Temple had come to its end, as is sometimes posited.  Mark’s Gospel lacks the embellishment (in the sense of a more rounded-out presentation) that are to be found in Matthew and Luke, with this being quite understandable. 

If Mark writes before the Temple’s fall, whereas Matthew and Luke write after the fall and because of the fall, then it is understandable that Mark’s account would be more direct and straightforward, lacking the material details and stories to be found in the narratives on offer in Matthew and Luke.  Understandably, composing their accounts of Jesus in a post-Temple-fall world, Matthew and Luke could be far more comfortable relating more of Jesus’ life story, as preserved and transmitted via the oral tradition.  However, if our insistence is correct, and the early church did indeed hold Jesus’ prediction concerning the Temple in very high regard (as we consider that Jesus is reported to have made precious few of what we might term “predictions”), giving it a place at the center of their teaching about Jesus as the thing that would bring about a great validation of His ministry, then it would be quite understandable to place all three of the synoptic Gospel accounts as being produced shortly after the very fall of the Temple that was predicted by Jesus, as recorded by the Gospel authors.   

We must place great weight on the fact that, despite numerous differences in details throughout the whole of their accounts of Jesus’ ministry and of His time and activities in the Temple, all three of the synoptic tales coalesce to identically report His talk about the generation that will see the fall of the Temple, as well as the words that immediately followed.  This single fact should be endlessly fascinating.  It would make perfect sense for all three of the evangelists’ works to spring from the fall of the Temple, with all being produced after that event in a veritable rush to generate and disperse the written account that would include His words about the Temple’s fall, placing it in a standardized form that could be used as a substantial legitimization of Jesus’ life and ministry.  It would also be used as a polemic against those that attempted to question the claims about Jesus and His kingdom that were being made by the Christian community.    

This then gives some weight to our theory that Peter’s writing comes before the fall of the Temple, and that part of it serves as a response to the questioning experienced by the early church communities concerning their report about Jesus’ words regarding the Temple and its fall.  It does seem possible that Peter’s words are in response to the accusation that Jesus is a false prophet precisely because the Temple (heaven and earth) is still standing, so Peter draws from the reservoir of judgment history, particularly the story of Noah (also alluded to by Matthew during His presentation of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse), to point out that God can certainly visit judgment upon His own timetable.  This would not then run contrary to what we find reported in the synoptic, that it would be this generation that would see the fall of the Temple and its concurrent (though certainly not visible) coming of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days.   

Though there was certainly a firmly held belief in Jesus as having been crucified and resurrected, it is conceivable that, in their minds, the fall of the Temple would be the final piece of the puzzle, validating all that Jesus had said and done.  Now, with the Temple destroyed, which also meant that the Son of Man had undoubtedly gone before the Ancient of Days to receive His kingdom (for if one prediction was correct, then the prediction that is reported to be so closely tied to it must be considered to be correct as well), all of the preaching and teaching about Jesus that had been taking place within the nascent church movement, and all of the persecution undergone by the church, primarily at the hands of the Temple authorities, could be seen to not have been done or experienced in vain. 

This line of thinking becomes especially poignant when we consider that Jesus’ dealings with and in the Temple are a central feature of the shared accounts of Jesus, and thus would have been particularly important to the nascent church.  They would have told and continued to tell this story and its associated predictions, doing so against all appearance (a still-standing Temple), doing so because the one that believed to have told it was also understood to have been resurrected.  We also realize that all three make it more than clear that it is this ongoing clash with the Temple authorities, culminating in Jesus’ judgment against the Temple, that ultimately resulted in the collusion with the Roman authorities that was productive of His death by crucifixion.